Bulgarian restaurant, club workers protest at COVID restrictions

About 2,000 Bulgarian restaurant and club owners, waiters, bartenders and gym instructors protested in the centre of the capital Sofia on Wednesday against newly imposed COVID-19 restrictions.

The protesters, holding up placards reading "We want to work" and "Freedom for business", marched from outside parliament to the health ministry, decrying the curbs they say are ill-targeted and discriminatory.

In an effort to curtail the latest surge of COVID-19 infections, Bulgaria - the European Union's least vaccinated nation - ordered restaurants and cafes to close at 11 p.m. as of Tuesday - a measure that effectively shuts down nightclubs.

The interim government has also ordered gyms and child activity centres to work at 30% of capacity.

"The virus does not come out (only) at 11 p.m. We have seen over the past two years that closing only restaurants and clubs does not work," said Richard Alibegov, head of the Bulgarian Association of Restaurants.

Taxi and bus drivers expressed their solidarity with the protesters by parking in a line between parliament and the demonstrating crowd.

The protesters held a minute of silence for the "death of small businesses" and accused the government of failing to come up with proper and timely compensation.

The government has asked the outgoing parliament to amend the 2021 budget to allow 420 million levs ($253.76 million) in funding to support businesses hard hit by measures to curb the pandemic. Alibegov said this outlay would be far from enough.

Health Minister Stoicho Katsarov said pleaded with affected businesses to be patient for two to three weeks to allow the new surge of contagion to be contained.

Bulgaria, a Balkan country of 7 million people, reported around 2,000 new COVID-19 cases, raising the total to some 464,700 since the start of the pandemic including 19,270 deaths.

Protesters vowed to disregard the restrictions and said they, along with transport workers, would block major roads later this month if the measures were not eased or proper compensation provided immediately.

($1 = 1.6551 leva)

(Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Mark Heinrich)


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